Throughout 2014, asbestos awareness and the risk to builders, plumbers and electricians of exposure continued to be a focus of targeted health and safety campaigns. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) themselves created an app to help all building trade workers identify and safely handle asbestos materials whenever it is uncovered at a property renovation or demolition.

Disturbing new evidence suggests that thousands of construction industry workers may still be at risk of developing pleural mesothelioma even if they were not employed in jobs traditionally linked with high asbestos exposure.

Risk has become more visible

Environmental exposure to asbestos is well-known and the number of asbestosis victims from this category of risk have become more visible in recent years. In particular, an increase in female exposure rates from environmental contact thought to be the result of male occupational exposure reducing as the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material began to slowly decline from the late 1970s onwards.

According to the HSE, an average of 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – will lose their lives every week to mesothelioma cancer due to asbestos exposure. But increasingly, studies find that although many of the mesothelioma cases occur in jobs traditionally associated with asbestos exposure, there was also a significant occurrence of the fatal cancer in other types of construction workers.

Incidence of mesothelioma was high

Ongoing European research into occupational exposure to asbestos has analysed the medical records of more than 367,000 construction workers who participated in health examinations between 1971 and 1993. The data shows that from a total of just over 400 cases of mesothelioma occurring between 1972 and 2009, not surprisingly, the incidence of mesothelioma was high among those who worked with some form of asbestos-containing insulation.

Upon closer examination, it was found that while the rates of mesothelioma were higher than the number of cases among the general public, nevertheless, they only accounted for around one in five of the mesothelioma cases recorded in the study.

Exposure occurs in many occupational groups

The findings appear to confirm that asbestos exposure occurs in many occupational groups, even if they may not have been directly in contact with asbestos fibre materials. While it is known that the highest risk of exposure is among builders, electricians and plumbers/ heating installers, the study found that there were even higher numbers of mesothelioma cases recorded among concrete workers, painters, joiners and foremen.

Analysis of the particular data used also confirmed that it was those individuals born between 1935 and 1945 who were the most likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma mainly due to the lack of proper safety protection measures in the workplace during that period of time.

Significant peak during the study period

The results conclude that the overall environmental risk of exposure to asbestos at work appears to be at a significant peak during the data study period. The findings may be given further support in the UK by previous HSE research, which suggests that around 1 in 170 of all British men born in the 1940s will die of mesothelioma and that 1 in 40 of all male cancer deaths are under 80 years of age.

In the UK, a significant proportion of all mesothelioma cases reported today are the result of exposures that occurred prior to 1980. Analyses of British mesothelioma deaths based on last recorded occupation suggest that former construction workers, particularly plumbers, electricians and carpenters, represent the key high-risk group, together with insulation workers, shipbuilders and railway engineers.

Late teens or early twenties

Even those individuals who were in their late teens or early twenties when starting work in asbestos-using occupations in the 1970s and 1980s, and only now approaching retirement aged in their late fifties or early sixties, are increasingly being diagnosed for mesothelioma or asbestosis disease.

The exceptionally long latency period from in initial period of exposure to the appearance of asbestosis symptoms of up to 50 years or more means for those employed in industrial / trade occupations for ten or more years there is a lifetime risk of 1 in 17 of contracting asbestos-related disease.

Ignore the regulations to protect themselves and others

In 2015, it is expected that small building firms will still be regularly seen in court for failing to carry out pre-work asbestos surveys or neglecting to act on the information. There will also be those firms who will still deliberately ignore the regulations to protect themselves and others on site, such as employees or tenants, from exposure to asbestos dust.

HSE have previously estimated that of the 1.8 million people who are annually exposed each year to asbestos, many are employed in the building, demolition and waste removal industries and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are also diagnosed annually.